A Guide to Internal Punctuation

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This post outlines the functions of punctuation marks employed within a sentence: the comma, the semicolon, the colon, and ellipses.

A comma performs a number of functions, including

  • setting off elements of a list (“I’m going to order soup, salad, and an entrée”)
  • combining with a conjunction to separate two independent clauses (“She ordered dinner, but she declined the dessert menu”)
  • separating a preceding dependent clause from the main clause (“Depending on the size of the entrée, I might not order dessert”)
  • setting off a nonrestrictive appositive (“My favorite dessert, cheesecake, is missing from the menu”)
  • separating a nonrestrictive relative clause from the main clause (“We were overwhelmed by the menu, which was six pages long”)
  • setting off an adverb from the main clause (“Ordinarily, I would not order dessert”; “I would, ordinarily, not order dessert”; “I would not order dessert, ordinarily”)
  • framing parenthetical phrases (“I will, just this once, order dessert”)
  • setting off coordinate adjectives (“I feel like having a big, thick slice of cheesecake for dessert”)
  • setting off an attribution from a quotation (“My friend said, ‘I’m going to order dessert’”)
  • setting off one or more words identifying the subject of direct address (“John, are you going to order dessert?”)
  • setting off a date from a year and parenthesizing the year (“January 1, 2018, dawned just like any other day”)
  • setting off a city name from a state or country name and parenthesizing the state or country name (“Lebanon, Kansas, is the geographic center of the contiguous United States”)
  • setting off a surname from a given name when the first-name, last-name order is inverted (“She is listed as ‘Doe, Jane’”)
  • indicating ellipsis of one or more words (“Everything was as I remembered it—the church was white, the barn, red”).

A comma should not separate a subject and a verb (as in the erroneous sentence “The tiramisu, is sublime”) except when it is closing a parenthetical phrase (“The tiramisu, as expected, is sublime”) or setting off repetition of a verb (“What it is, is sublime”). Likewise, a verb and its direct object should not be split asunder (as shown in the incorrectly punctuated sentence “She intuitively grasped, that she was in trouble.”)

Another error that involves a comma is a comma splice, in which a comma, rather than a stronger punctuation mark such as a semicolon or a dash, appears between two independent clauses not separated by a conjunction, as in “You see a half-empty glass, I see a half-full one.” (An exception can be made for brief declarations, as in Julius Caesar’s famous summary “I came, I saw, I conquered.”)

The semicolon has two primary functions. First, it unites two closely related independent clauses, as in “You see a half-empty glass; I see a half-full one.” (In such cases, it takes the place of a period or a conjunction; including both a semicolon and a conjunction is an error.) Second, it replaces two or more commas in an in-line list (a list with a sentence) when one or more of the list items itself includes commas, as in “The names, as listed, are Doe, Jane; Jones, William; and Smith, John” or “I spotted many squirrels; several deer; and a hawk, an osprey, and a heron.” (If the list organization is obvious, as when list items begin with distinct verbs, commas may be employed, as in “She shopped at the supermarket, visited the bank and the credit union, and ran errands at the hardware store, the drugstore, and the dry cleaner’s.”)

Colons can also set off coordinate clauses in complex sentences or otherwise signal a more pronounced pause than a comma would suggest, but such uses are uncommon.

In quoted material, a semicolon always follows a close quotation mark. Also, the mark may seem too formal in the midst of a sentence in quotation marks; a dash more clearly conveys a transition to a separate assertion or idea, as in “Mary said, ‘Don’t go in the abandoned house—it’s not safe in there’” rather than “Mary said, ‘Don’t go in the abandoned house; it’s not safe in there.’”

A colon precedes

  • quoted material set up by a complete statement rather than an attribution (“His reply was succinct: ‘Not a chance’”)
  • an explanation (“We declined the invitation primarily for one reason: He insists on driving, and we don’t feel safe as his passengers”)
  • a list (“The meal consists of the following courses: appetizer, salad, entrée, and dessert”).

It is also employed between pairs of numbers

  • to represent ratios (“The results indicate a 5:3 ratio”)
  • in references to time (“The next train is at 1:35”)
  • in numerical representations of elapsed time (“The record stands at 3:26.00”)
  • when citing biblical verses (“John 3:16 expresses the same sentiment”).

A colon also separates a book’s title and subtitle or, in bibliographies, the city where a publisher is located and the name of the publisher. In formal writing, it follows the salutation.

A colon always follows a close quotation mark.

Ellipsis means “omission,” but it primarily refers to a succession of three periods, called ellipses, usually interspersed with letter spaces, or a single symbol representing three periods. Style guides differ in which form is preferred, but the ellipsis symbol looks cramped, and use of ellipses (a series of periods) is more visually pleasing.

Ellipses represent omission of one or more words in the middle of a sentence (“A friend . . . knows all about you and still loves you”); generally, they are unnecessary when omitting what precedes a partial quotation.

The use of ellipses as terminal punctuation will be discussed in a separate post.

Uses of the dash are detailed in this post.

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6 thoughts on “A Guide to Internal Punctuation”

  1. CONUS is an acronym of “Contiguous United States”, and this means the 48 states that connect with one another by unbroken curves. For example, you can take a globe and draw a curve from Maine to Seattle, entirely in the U.S., but not a straight line. (A straight line on the globe takes you through Canada, especially Ontario.)
    Lots of people get “contiguous” and “continental”. The 49th state, Alaska, is part of the continental U.S. but is not part of the CONUS. Alaska is separated from the CONUS by British Columbia, the Yukon Territory, Alberta, and the Pacific Ocean.
    “Lebanon, Kansas, is the geographic center of the contiguous United States,” is incorrect. The Geographic Center of the CONUS is farther east, in central Missouri. Then in 1959, the addition of Alaska moved this centerpoint west to Kansas.

  2. There is another notable centerpoint hereabouts. The Geographical Center of North America is in the Dakotas. Canada is a huge country (the second-largest one in the world), and Alaska is just as far north, but by saying “North America”, that includes Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Cuba, etc., and that is enough to keep the Geographical Center of North America within the United States.
    One widely accepted divider between North America and South America is the Panama Canal, which lies on the Isthmus of Panama. Other people say that the southern boundary of North America is the southern boundary of Mexico, and beyond that lies Central America. Then they toss in all of Panama with Central America, which it is, politically.

  3. “CONUS”, the first 48 states, is very important to the Department of Defense of the United States. Under various names, the CONUS has fallen under the CONUS Command, the Central Command, or whatever.
    The Territory of Alaska, and then the State of Alaska has always fallen under either the Alaska Command or the Pacific Command (based in Honolulu). Then the Territory of Hawaii, and then the State of Hawaii have always been under the Pacific Command.
    Canada, Alaska, and the CONUS fall under the North American Aerospace Defense Command, whose HQ is in or around Colorado Springs, Colorado. That put its HQ deeply south of Canada and Alaska, and a long way from aeronautical threats by the USSR, Red China, Cuba, etc. The U.S. and Canada also have rights to defense bases on Greenland via treaties with Denmark, such as the North Atlantic Treaty of 1949.

  4. There is one state in the CONUS that only has a boundary with one other state: Maine is bounded by New Hampshire on its south and west.
    Otherwise, what about states with two others:
    Florida is bounded by Georgia and Alabama.
    South Carolina is bounded by Georgia and North Carolina.
    Washington is bounded by Idaho and Oregon.
    Rhode Island is bounded by Massachusetts and Connecticut.
    As for Delaware, it has land boundaries with Maryland and Pennsylvania, plus little-known ones with New Jersey (on the eastern side of the Delaware River), plus one huge set of bridges over the Delaware River.

  5. I omitted a word, and I should have typed:
    Lots of people get “contiguous” and “continental” confused.

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